February 2017

Recently, while watching a University of Tennessee basketball game, I thought about Harold Anthony “Lou” Bello,” a serious college basketball referee who also was a zany comedian on the court. I wondered if he was still alive but sadly found out that he passed away in 1991.

In the mid-1960s, I along with several of my classmates at the University of Tennessee, had the misfortune of having chemistry lab on Saturday afternoons, often during key sporting events.

Sometimes we would hurry through our experiments, scurry across campus and find a place to sit, usually on the floor at Stokely Athletics Center. This was especially meaningful if we knew that Lou Bello would be on there. 

The Man Himself – Lou Bella Officiating a Basketball Game

Bello, who became one of North Carolina's most colorful sports figures, was an uninhibited game official and would do anything to get a chuckle from the many fans. He successfully blended seriousness with foolishness, depending on the situation.

If a game was out of reach, you simply quit watching the contest and began focusing on “Lou.” Either way, you got your money's worth of entertainment.

A 1947 graduate of Duke University, Bella began officiating games in Duke's intramural program and later became a basketball official in the Atlantic Coast, Southeastern and Southern conferences.

He also officiated college and high school football and baseball games and was a Carolina League umpire from 1949 until 1952. He was a teacher in the Wake County, NC schools from 1950 to 1958 and again in 1966.

“Lou is all referee and part clown,” said Horace “Bones” McKinney, Wake Forest University's basketball coach from 1958 to 1965. “He had as good a judgment in it as anybody refereeing during my time. When I saw him walk out on the court, I was not concerned. I knew I would get as good a shake as anyone.” Lou practiced fairness.

“Lou was also very sensitive,” Mr. McKinney said.” If he thought he had hurt the coach with a missed call, it would bother him afterwards.”

Dean Smith, former head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in a statement: “Lou was one of the great sports personalities in North Carolina, first as an official, then as a radio commentator and finally a fan of sports, particularly basketball.”

Lou got along with all the coaches and players, and when the game became one-sided, he'd kid around without embarrassing the losing team.

Mr. Bella stood out among the relatively anonymous group because of his antics. When crowds booed his introduction, he would simply bow,  applaud himself and ask for more. When fans threw pennies at him, he pocketed as many as he could find and then pleaded for half dollars.

Sports officials who refereed many games alongside Lou enjoyed his partner's unique humor. But they also saw his serious side. Lou worked every game as if it were the ACC, NBA or state championship.

Once before a game at Oxford Orphanage, Lou told his co-officials to work the game as serious as if it were the Super Bowl. He explained that this game was very important to the kids. He had a heart for youngsters.

Mr. Bella kept things lively and light. He had a great capacity to make people laugh by putting on a show. He did it in close games too, at least for a while.

People who attended Stokely Athletics Center always got their money's worth and more. At some expected moment, usually after a fowl call, Lou would come down the court galloping like a horse, blow his whistle and make funny comments about the call. He was probably the only official in the country who could get by with such unusual conduct. The crowd loved it.

When my mind drifts back to my University of Tennessee years, I usually see Lou Bello standing right in the middle of the court with a sly, silly grin on his face. He was one of a kind and he knew it. Sadly, he “fouled” out far too early in the “game.”

“Thank you, Lou, for the memories; you were absolutely a hoot. You have not been forgotten. We need more like you in this life.”

 It has been 55 years since he entertained me and I still remember him as if it were yesteryear.

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In 1940, an unidentified announcer at WJHL radio wanted readers to understand that the idea that all there was to do at a radio station was to put on a record and let it play was erroneous to the extreme. He chose to send a letter to the newspaper educating the public: “Every minute of program material,” he said, “is carefully gone over and finally presented with a definite idea in mind. The purpose of the Program Department is to keep on the air the entertainment that is wanted by the listeners.

“Because there are approximately 350,000 listeners who tune into WJHL, the Program Department had to present a greatly varied program schedule in order to please every one of their listeners as frequently as possible.

“This is done by breaking down into separate units and scheduling as much variety therein as is possible. Yes, there is more popular music on the air than any other one type of entertainment, but that is because it pleases a greater number of people.

“And yet, only about 35 percent of a radio day consists of popular music. Some 20 percent is light classical and concert music while another 15 percent is news. Then comes religious programs and others. Every taste has to be satisfied at some time or another during the day. The more often listeners have available the type of program they like the best, the happier is the Program Department.

Unidentified WJHL Announcers Believed to Have Been in the Late 1930s-40s

“As for records, WJHL seldom uses them; instead, it uses transcriptions, which are vastly different. Here's how the Program Department at WJHL operates. All of the programs that go on the air are handled by this department. Some new idea might not become a program overnight, but given time, it usually works its way into the schedule sooner than later, and that is good.

“First, the idea has to culminate into a program that has a definite appeal to one group of listeners. If it is for the housewife, the idea is then scheduled as a mid-morning program. For the clerk in a store, an early evening program better fits the bill. For the kiddies, a late afternoon time works best. After all ideas are evaluated thoroughly, a program is established, which then requires rehearsals and timing.

“Then there is something else. The program, regardless of how good it is, cannot be scheduled too close to another program of a similar nature. Two programs of the same type of music or two programs of speakers cannot immediately follow one another. There has to be variety for the different listeners in that particular group.

“And so a clear time is picked, one that will not interfere with similar programs, and then the new program is set up on the master schedule from which comes the daily program schedule. Quite simply, however, there are some 69 quarter hours in each radio day. That is a lot of time to fill. Each program has to be timed and checked for program content.

“Then there is a matter of checking and filling all of the 50,000 musical selections, the crosschecking of all of the cards which enabled them to find these selections quickly, the on-going checking on copyrights, the unending search for new talent and the ability to present what the listeners want the most.”

Verification of Reception for the Radio Station in 1946

“If this didn't help clear up in the minds of the listeners what goes on in the Program Department, they were invited to drop in at WJHL any night at a late hour and see for themselves. Meanwhile, the radio station hoped listeners would pay attention and become better acquainted with what was offered in the way of their favorite programs.

“The station was convinced that if the listener knew their station, they would have no trouble in keeping up with the things they liked the most in the way of radio entertainment.”

The announcer concluded his newspaper remarks noting that “WJHL's modernly arranged and equipped office and studio, ranked as one of the best for any city of comparable size in the country.

If you can identify any of the announcers in my column photo, which appears to have been taken in the 1940s, I will post it again with an update of the names I receive. The only person I can recognize is Henry Frick on the top far left. He and Mrs. Frick owned and operated The Music Mart on S. Roan Street for many years. I had the pleasure of working for him for three years.

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Things sure have changed since John Cash Penney opened a dry goods store in Kemmerer, Wyoming 90 years ago. Back in 1902, America was a country of small towns, Kemmerer being one of them with a population of 900. Penney, a 26-year-old entrepreneur, figured they could support a dry goods store. His first day sales came to $466.59, an astonishing amount considering the most expensive item in the store was a $9.95 suit. More typical were the 35-cent overalls and 49-cent ladies shoes.

J.C. Penney Co. Notifies the Public of a New Store Opening in Johnson City, 1929

Penney's strategy was to set a fair price and stick firmly to it. That appealed to most residents who were accustomed to haggling with local merchants and who generally pressed for the highest price possible. Within five years, Penney had acquired three more stores and had moved his original dry goods store to a larger building.

Through the years, Penney was one of the first to apply new strategies to running department stores. In the early days, cash was kept in a muffin tin under the counter, but later Mr. Penney would adopt the Lamson Basket Method (baskets running on a wire and pulley system) and the intriguing looking Pneumatic Tube System, both of which whisked away customers' cash by overhead wires or vacuum tubes. It was worth a trip to the stores just to observe new technology at work.

In 1923, when JC Penney Company was 21 years old, it opened its first store in Johnson City at 319-21 E. Main Street (opposite the Johnson City Buick Company). This was its 475th store. You could buy a man's silk shirt for $4.88 and ladies new spring frocks – flat crepe in alluring colors, lively prints and staple shades – georgette in lovely models, scarf's, jackets, tiers and bows added interest at $14.75.

Children's shoes cost $2.49, girls dresses ranged from $.98 to $2.49, and a boy's suit went for $8.90. That year, men's waistband overalls, now called jeans, were $2.49. Women's cotton dresses went for $2.00 and dress shoes at $8.90.

The year 1929 brought about the need for a bigger store in Johnson City. Two buildings were purchased at 240-42 E. Main Street (opposite the Rialto Cafe). Some of us recall that location being occupied by Lorraine Shops and Booze Bros. Inc. Shoes. A bold clipping in the Johnson City Chronicle said, “J.C. Penney Co. To Move Into New Home Soon. New Building Modernly Equipped, To Be Occupied. Opening This Week.”

“The Burrow building, a two-story brick facility, has been entirely remodeled, two buildings have been combined with a new interior and plate glass front, and modern store fixtures and equipment provided.

“New and additional equipment has been secured by Penney for the new location, and a considerable larger stock will be displayed, complete stocks of clothing and accessories, for men, women and children and for the home as a complete department store in the most modern sense.

“Penney will move early this week and fuller announcements will be made as to opening dates and special features of interest to the public during the formal opening in their new home.”

Mr. J.C. Penny as He Looked in His Younger Days (public domain)

The next Penney move occurred 19 years later in 1948 when the store moved to the impressive, modernistic building at 307-13 E. Main St, (opposite Charles Stores Co.). J.C. Penney stayed downtown until 1980 when the Main Street store closed and the company reopened in the Johnson City Mall.

Though Mr. Penney was instrumental in bringing his ever-growing chain stores into the modern age, he is also known for his staunch opposition to increasing popular in-house credit. Early department stores were strictly cash only, mainly because it kept prices lower. Later, credit became necessary to be competitive and Penneys reluctantly complied.

James Cash Penney died Feb. 12, 1971, and was buried in Kemmerer, Wyoming. Since he opened his first store in 1902, the chain peaked at 2053 stores in 1973. 

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The words to the song, “The Death of Floyd Collins,” speak of a Kentucky mining tragedy that claimed the life of a young cave explorer on January 30, 1925. Andrew B. Jenkins, a blind Atlanta evangelist, composed the original song and Fiddlin' John Carson (Okeh Records) and Vernon Dalhart (Perfect Records) each recorded the song about the tragic mishap.

Floyd Collins (public domain)

Floyd Collins' family owned Crystal Cave in Central Kentucky. Although it was described as a very nice cave, it was too far off the trail to attract tourists and generate needed income. Instead, nearby Mammoth Cave was the major draw for sightseers. Floyd was determined to find an entrance from his property to Mammoth Cave. Nearby Sand Cave had always been described as a collection of smaller “nothing” caves that were bypassed by almost everyone.

Collins enlarged a hole in the corner of Sand Cave hoping to find a shorter route to Mammoth Cave. He became fluent in using his voice to sound out nearby regions. Many people believe that Floyd had located a new passageway in Sand Cove just prior to the accident.

Floyd Collins' Birth Place

Over time, Floyd Collins had gained the reputation of being a gifted caver (as cave explorers became known) in the country surrounding the longest cave system in the world. Decades later, explorers found items in the caves indicating that Floyd was indeed gifted. But further exploration that fateful day in early 1925 came to an abrupt halt.

The caver was leaving a dangerously unstable passage when a 27-pound rock came crashing down on his foot, trapping him. Although the rock was not that heavy, it became wedged in other rocks, which prevented it from being moved to free Collins.

Just 120 feet from the entrance and 60 feet underground, Floyd lay unable to move in a cold, dark tunnel. The night passed with no relief for him.

Okeh Record of the Tragedy, Sung by Fiddlin' John Carson

For more than two weeks, Floyd suffered in his tight passage, while above him a carnival atmosphere of restless people congregated, hoping for a miracle. Each day, frequent news accounts were being reported in the Louisville, KY newspaper first-hand by a brave reporter who navigated the unstable cave passage, dropping food to Floyd, talking with him and even attempting to free him. But his noble efforts were to no avail.

Even today, Floyd Collins' sad drama can be found in old newspapers and library microfilms. The story was first reported as a minor mishap with full expectations that Collins would be freed within hours. That did not happen; the story worsened until it dominated front page news across the country and even abroad for two weeks, which included the Johnson City Press-Chronicle. Everybody become aware of Floyd Collins' quandary.

Family members and his fellow cavers tried to free him. When it became clear that his rescue would not be easy, his brother Homer spent nights in the cave with him to offer him moral support.

Despite efforts by numerous miners, the National Guard and the Red Cross, all attempts at rescue failed, and the crowd grew outside the cave as a media circus ensued. Even after all the attention, Floyd still lay hopelessly trapped and time was quickly running out.

Sign at the Site Where Floyd Collins Died 

Seventeen days after Floyd had entered the cave, a shaft finally reached him, but it was too late. Doctors believed he had died three days prior. The inevitable occurred sometime around the 15th day when, sadly, Floyd's voice was stilled forever.

Authorities decided that it was too dangerous to remove the body and left it where it lay. Some 80 days later, Floyd's brother, Homer, raised enough money to exhume him and give him a decent burial. Later, Crystal Cave was sold and Floyd's body was initially put in a glass topped coffin at the entrance to it. Later after several bizarre events occurred, he received a proper burial.

Today, a marker still stands at the cave entrance as a memorial to a brave man who was trapped alive for over two weeks and where he breathed his final tortured breath.

(Thanks to Alan Bridwell for assisting with this article.)

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